Leaving Our Past Behind Us and Choosing How to Think

My 16-year-old daughter walked into my bedroom this morning, seemingly angry. This is my kid who has always valued justice and kindness, and when she sees someone being hurt or attacked, it infuriates her. In this case, it was a teammate who had been cornered by two other players after she went to the coach regarding problems being created by the two girls. The girls were screaming at this girl in a team meeting room. Other teammates were standing outside the room, unsure of what to do, or walking away. My daughter walked in to put an end to the attack by reminding the girls it was time to set up for practice, and then waited to walk out with the girl who had been the focus of the attack.

In my opinion, a good approach and what seemed like a good resolution. Until my daughter started sobbing. Only then did she share with me that seeing that teammate cornered, a teammate who is nice to others and doesn’t stand up for herself, resonated too strongly with her. Two years ago, she had been that girl, cornered in a hotel room by half of her teammates. It was a stereotypical “mean girls” situation with a leader who wanted to be listened to and worshipped and followers who were caught up in her orbit. The coach held a team meeting but there was no resolution. “They never said they were sorry, Mom. It’s like it was no big deal to them but it changed me. I question everything I do to make sure I’m not doing something that might make people angry.”

I knew that had been a really harrowing situation for my daughter. She felt trapped and didn’t understand why these girls “hated [her]” so much. I had been furious by the way it was handled, but I hadn’t realized it had created such a lasting effect on my daughter.

This experience isn’t unique to my daughter. One of my clients began working with me because she had lost confidence in herself after being pushed out of her job. She confronted a co-worker who was being inappropriate with female employees, and then brought the matter to their supervisor, who also happened to be a friend of the co-worker. The environment became toxic, and my client’s role was “dissolved”. She was paralyzed with self-doubt after that happened, ruminating over the questions of why she was let go and not the offender, and what she did wrong?

How many of us have events in our life which resulted in negative changes in how we perceive situations, how we react to others or how we view ourselves? Some of these events might be overtly significant to others; those types of events that other people clearly see why they affected you. Other events might simply be significant to us, things that no one else might see as traumatic or major but were to us. These past events end up shaping us in ways we may not even realize.

So how do we stop the detrimental experiences of the past from influencing our future? We can start by identifying the situations that leave these long-term, unwanted effects on us. As we identify them, don’t discount them. “That was such a little thing; it shouldn’t still be bothering me.” “People deal with worse things.” “It happened so long ago.” These are certainly rational thoughts but if you don’t believe them, they only make you feel worse. Here is the reality. The event or series of situations happened. They left a negative effect on you. Now you get to decide if the result is one you want to hold on to or if it is time to employ strategies to counteract the unwanted effects.

It starts with your thoughts related to the situation. What replacement thoughts can take the place of the original thoughts? Instead of my client beating herself up over “what [she] did wrong”, we walked through an analysis of her values and compared her list to the values of her former organization. She discovered her value system contrasted with that of the organization. Her unhappiness and discomfort at her previous role started long before her whistleblowing because of this disconnect. When her brain tried to go in the direction of the habitual thought related to what did she do wrong, my client replaced that thought with “what was wrong was that my values didn’t align with the organization”. She had clear evidence of this in the organization’s support of the offender, a protocol my client was morally opposed to. She built on this thought, noting other areas which were in opposition to what she believed in. She used these additional, new thought to move her belief system away from the idea that something was wrong with her. The new thought ultimately provided her the opportunity to find an organization which shared her same values and in which she felt appreciated.

Once these replacement thoughts are implemented, practicing these whenever your brain strays towards past, detrimental thinking is the next step. Like all habits, it is challenging to break this tendency. It is easier to let our brains spin chaotically with the same pattern of thinking. At this point, ask yourself whether you want to feel the way created by these thoughts. By staying with the habitual thinking, you will continue to have the negative effects that come from the past situation and the thoughts originally created from that situation. If you don’t like how you’re feeling, then it is worth it to push back against the thoughts with your replacement thoughts to let these become your habit.

The key point to remember is that you can choose whether you want past events to shape who you are, how you think and how you feel. You can create a practice of replacement thoughts that make you feel happier, stronger, more confident and, most importantly, less cornered by your own thoughts.

A cognitive-behavioral coach with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Dr. Robin Buckley helps executive women and couples thrive in their careers and relationships.